In Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem edited by Heath A. Thomas, et al., there is a chapter by Timothy G. Gombis titled “The Rhetoric of Divine Warfare in Ephesians”. If you’ve read his wonderful book The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God you may be familiar with his overarching thesis. The end of his essay discusses Paul’s household codes. Gombis writes the following (p. 105):
“In other household codes, the same sets of relationships appear (husband-wife, father-children, master-slaves), but the point of the instruction is the ultimate comfort of the husband/patriarch. That is, the counsel is directed toward a well-ordered household with a view to how the patriarch would maintain control over every other member of the community. Paul’s instructions, therefore, is radically subversive. Where there are hierarchical relationships, Paul addresses the subordinate member first, giving them dignity. They are full participants in the people of God. In contemporary visions of society, these members are not addressed at all. They only appear as objects of control by the patriarch. In God’s new people, there is no place for control, domination, manipulation of others or exploitation.”
Gombis anticipates that this may not satisfy some, since Paul* doesn’t aim to dismantle various hierarchies. This is what he suggest we must understand about Paul (p. 106):
“…many modern ethicists have trouble with Paul’s vision of human relationships in the household code. Most obviously, Paul does not call for the overthrow of slavery, and he maintains the cultural hierarchy in marriage. Can we really say that Paul’s political vision is radically redemptive when he maintains relationships of inequality? We need to note carefully what Paul does here. His ethical vision does not transform first-century corruptions with post-Enlightenment solutions. To judge Paul based on a cultural and ethical situation two millennia removed from his situation is quite unfair. Paul addresses his contemporary context and transforms the structures as he encounters them. While he doesn’t call for the overthrow of societal structures, he does demand that structures operate with justice so that people in every social situation are treated with dignity. The gospel of Jesus Christ enters the first-century situation and transforms it. We read Ephesians faithfully when we read it to gain wisdom for how the gospel seeks to enter our situation to transform it.”
I am in agreement with Gombis here. Could Paul have done more? Some think so, but that is debatable. Though Paul is a towering figure now, he was merely an embattled representative of a small part of a small sect with little to no political authority. Should Paul have told wives—many who were married young and who lacked the education and experience to survive on their own—to “take a stand for equality”? That would have been extremely dangerous for many of those women. All one needs to do is imagine being a missionary to parts of our modern world where women are married young and often treated as a form of property. How does one aim to soften to hearts of men without causing more trouble for the women? Or, as we consider slavery, we know that it can be a bloody ordeal to upend slavery, and when it is not it has taken much political effort. I don’t think violence or political influence were options for Paul.
We don’t have to parrot Paul, acting as if he raised the bar as high as it might go, but we should be equally as cautious when it comes to judging him against our own time.
* Gombis understands this epistle to be written by Paul. Obviously, this is disputed.